Alfred Schnittke is an eclectic composer who still manages to sound completely original.
His viola concerto runs through almost more moods and musical styles than one can count. As Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director David Zinman wrote in a fine program note for last night's performance of the piece in Meyerhoff Hall, the Russian composer's arsenal ranges from medieval chant to avant-garde techniques.
It's a monster of piece to play -- 30 minutes without a break, in which Schnittke never gives the soloist a chance to rest. The Russian composer's scoring eliminates the violins, thus giving the viola a chance to soar without having to worry about its more brilliantly pitched cousins. In this piece, the viola is Cinderella at the ball. The orchestration is filled with ingenious effects -- I was particularly struck by a moment in which the viola sings a mournful melody over a trombone chorale -- and those effects cohere.
The end of the long final movement is an impressive study in sustained resignation that may be one of the finest quiet endings in the music of the last 35 years. Violist Richard Field's performance of this tragic piece was intense, beautiful in tone and extraordinarily virtuosic. He's the kind of violist who makes you wish that there were more solo pieces for his instrument. And Zinman and the BSO gave him an accompaniment that was better than any I have heard on records.
This all-Russian program concluded with Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2. I've been listening with pleasure to Zinman conduct this piece for almost 20 years. I'm happy to report that last night's performance was the best I've ever heard him give.